Culture

Is Ambition Overrated?

Our cultural obsession with success is bad for everyone, argues one writer.

By Grace O'Neill
There's a telling moment in Miss Americana, Taylor Swift's new Netflix documentary. Swift has just won 'Record of the Year' at the Grammys for the second time in a row. This is in 2016, when we were lead to believe she had a cohort of supermodel BFFs on speed dial, yet over voiceover Swift laments wishing she'd had somebody to call that night. Throughout the documentary there is a palpable loneliness to its subject, a kind of 'life at the top is hard' narrative that succeeds in making the pop star feel human in a way she never has before.
It's also an affecting portrait of the pitfalls of the 'success at all costs' ethos that Swift admits consumed her life for the better part of a decade. Granted, it was hugely successful, helping guide her from a teen country prodigy to global pop megaforce and one of the most successful female recording artists of all time.
Taylor Swift at the 2016 Grammys
Image: Getty
Swift reveals that the immortalized moment in which Kanye West snatched her microphone to condemn her MTV VMA Award for 'Best Music Video' in 2009 was (perhaps unsurprisingly) hugely formative for her. Swift, only 20 and still a relative newcomer at the time, was convinced that the crowd of industry heavyweights were booing her (they were actually booing West). She says the incident made her hell-bent on proving her worth in the entertainment industry, an ambition that led to success and fame far beyond even her most earnest 13-year-old self's imaginings, but one which didn't appear to have brought her much personal happiness.
Of course, this is a story with a happy ending. After facing the reckoning of public 'cancellation' and taking a period to recalibrate her priorities, Swift is shown to be a 30-year-old woman fostering a healthy relationship with success. She is politically engaged, loved-up, healthy, happy and making music she is proud of. In this way, Miss Americana presents one of the best critiques I've seen of our society's unhealthy irreverence for ambition—a topic we discuss in-depth in the latest episode of the podcast I co-host—After Work Drinks.
Swift and (maybe) fiancé Joe Alwyn in 2019
Image: Getty
I can hear you shouting through your screen: "Grace, why are you encouraging women to strive for less? Aren't you supposed to be a feminist?" But I think our cultural obsession with ambition is a social scourge that affects both genders pretty much equally. Jack Dorsey, the millennial CEO of Twitter, famously goes on days-long fasts to "improve productivity" and only eats seven meals per week (many were quick to label this as an example of disordered eating).
Elon Musk called into question our sanctification of 'workaholics' when he revealed he works 120-hour weeks, sometimes going days without sleep. (Ariana Huffington later condemned this behaviour in an open letter, claiming after 17 hours without sleep, cognitive impairment is tantamount to a 0.05 blood alcohol limit). Mark Zuckerberg's obsession with Facebook's financial and user growth arguably led to Russian interference in a democratic election. And lest we forget it was the Weinstein Company's obsession with winning Oscars and making bank that kept serial rapist Harvey Wenstein protected for decades.
In fact, many of society's ills could be boiled down the dark downside of mindless ambition. Would we have the Trump presidency if Donald weren't so hellbent on achieving things simply for the sake of achieving them? In fact, imagine if all global leaders applied for jobs because they were qualified for and interested in them, rather than in the pursuit of status and success?
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey courted controversy when he revealed he eats only seven meals a week
Image: Getty
Our reverence for those who pursue a 'win, whatever it takes' attitude was on full display last month when another Netflix documentary, the unexpectedly touching Cheer, went viral. Monica Aldama, head coach of the Navarro Cheer squad, has been placed on a sizable pedestal by the shows' many viewers. Reese Witherspoon Tweeted that she "cried" watching Aldama—who has coached the Navarro team to victory 14 times—in action. The Cut interviewed her for their 'How I Get It Done' series.
I had a different reaction, I found Aldama's blind ambition unnerving. Throughout Cheer we see the many teenage cheerleaders Aldama coaches—most of whom are vulnerable and underprivileged—punish their bodies to meet her increasingly drastic demands. They suffer multiple concussions, broken bones and myriad other injuries. Cheerleading, the documentary reveals, is responsible for 65 per cent of 'catastrophic' injuries among female athletes—meaning injuries resulting in death or serious brain or spinal injuries. Watching Cheer, it isn't difficult to see why.
Monica Aldama, star of the Netflix documentary series Cheer
Of course, ambition has its upsides. All the great achievements in human history are a byproduct of ambition! Without it, our art galleries would be empty, horses would still be our preferred method of transport and we'd be dropping dead age 28 from a common cold. Women being granted the freedom to pursue their own ambitions is one of society's greatest recent accomplishments. I'm certainly not suggesting that we do away with ambition altogether—I just think we should strive to adopt a healthier relationship with it. We are a society that treats ambition like a virtue and I think this is a mistake. Believing that achieving enough things will make you a better person is one of the great myths of the social media era, it leaves us doing more and feeling less satisfied for having done it.
This has certainly been the case for me. I spent a large portion of my life mindlessly chasing down goals in the blind hope that the next promotion, published story or appearance in the podcast charts would make me feel like a fully realised person. But I've learned that my ambition is never, ever satisfied—it is always hungry. And that insatiable appetite means it isn't always acting in my best interest. It has driven me to achieve milestones I'm hugely proud of, but in the process I've neglected friendships, missed birthdays and, ultimately, ended up in a psychologist's office with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.
I've come to think of my ambition like a friend who sits on my shoulder (an analogy borrowed from the wonderful Bill Hader, who uses it to describe his anxiety). She's someone to talk to, to negotiate with and to occasionally fight with—someone who can be very helpful, but who isn't always right. Managing that relationship is hard and requires daily work, but it means I'm able to give a little more room to my health and happiness, which is infinitely worth it.
I have a real respect for Taylor Swift for shedding light on the importance of this relationship—whether this was her intention with Miss Americana or not. In a moment where curated social media feeds make us feel as if everyone is achieving better goals faster than we are, a gentle reminder to go a little easier on ourselves is very welcome. A more successful, happier version of yourself isn't waiting two-steps ahead of you if you'll only try hard enough, you already are her! Cut her a bit of slack.
Listen to the latest episode of After Work Drinks below or here.